World News

Egypt Hands Over Video in Murder Case — Damaged and 2 Years Late

Posted June 1, 2018 5:14 p.m. EDT

CAIRO — An Italian prosecutor flew from Cairo to Rome this week bearing precious cargo: a thumb drive containing surveillance video from the Cairo metro system that could hold the key to a politically charged murder investigation.

The Italians hope the images will lead to the killers of Giulio Regeni, 28, an Italian graduate student whose battered body was found on a Cairo roadside in February 2016. Regeni’s death traumatized Italians, led to a 16-month diplomatic freeze between Egypt and Italy, and produced heated accusations that Egypt was withholding evidence because members of its security services were among the chief suspects in the case.

On Wednesday, more than two years after the killing, the Egyptians handed over surveillance footage from the subway system where Regeni is thought to have vanished. Italian specialists will use facial recognition software to scan video fragments from hundreds of cameras for any glimpse of Regeni, who had come to Cairo to study the trade union movement.

But their chances of success are slim. By the time Egyptian authorities recovered the video, more than a week after it had been requested by the Italians, most of it had been erased, overwritten by later surveillance recordings. Just 5 percent of the images from the night Regeni disappeared remain, an Italian judicial official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The official estimated their chances of finding an image of Regeni in the video at 1 in 1 million.

The surveillance footage saga is emblematic of the grindingly slow progress in a case that has dogged relations between Italy and Egypt, and in which politics and police work have become hopelessly intertwined. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has repeatedly denied that his security forces played any role in Regeni’s death, and vowed to find his killers. But so far there have been no arrests, and critics say the case has come to highlight the impunity of the security forces under his rule.

The investigation has limped along for two years, with nine meetings between prosecutors from both countries. Egypt periodically handed over morsels of evidence that sometimes provided tantalizing leads, but no prosecutions. The two countries have negotiated over the surveillance video for 27 months.

Italian officials have wavered between praise for Egyptian cooperation and anger at obstruction that, in April 2016, led Rome to withdraw its ambassador from Cairo for 16 months.

The case has had a chilling effect on the academic community, and fears deepened this week with the detention of a graduate student at a U.S. university who was researching Egypt’s judicial system.

The student, Waleed Salim al-Shobakky, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington in Seattle, was charged with spreading fake news and membership in the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, his lawyer said Thursday.

Shobakky, who is Egyptian, was detained last week as he left an interview at the office of a law professor in Cairo. He was ordered detained for 15 days and is being held at the maximum-security Tora prison outside Cairo.

His lawyer, Mokhtar Mounir, said his client was not politically active. “They are coming after him because he is a politics researcher,” he said. “There is nothing else to it.”

A spokesman for the University of Washington declined to comment on the case, saying only that “our paramount interest is the safety of any member of our community.”

Shobakky’s case has been included in a mass trial that started earlier this year, and which has become a kind of catchall for perceived el-Sissi critics including a woman who was interviewed for a BBC documentary on torture, a prominent lawyer, two young journalists and Wael Abbas, a well-known blogger arrested last week.

Regeni disappeared after leaving his Cairo apartment on the evening of Jan. 25, 2016, on the fifth anniversary of the start of the Arab Spring protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Regeni’s parents mounted a fierce campaign to discover the truth about his death that won widespread sympathy in Italy and kept up pressure on the Rome government.

There was also pressure on el-Sissi, who had just signed a contract to exploit a huge offshore gas field with the Italian state-controlled energy giant, Eni. He immediately agreed to a joint investigation into the killing. Weeks later, Egyptian police officers killed four men they accused of abducting Regeni, but which later appeared to be a bungled cover-up.

As the investigation progressed, some facts pointed to the involvement of Egypt’s security forces in the killing. Egyptian officials admitted that Regeni was being monitored by Egyptian intelligence weeks before his death. A videotape was produced showing that a union leader who had befriended Regeni had secretly filmed one of their meetings.

In recent months, Italian officials have identified nine Egyptian security officials they believe were connected to Regeni’s death, and sent a 70-page file on them to Egypt. The Egyptians interrogated the suspects, some repeatedly, but there has been no sign of prosecutions.

Handing over the damaged metro footage was delayed as Egyptian and Italian officials debated how to try to recover the erased data. A German company was hired to try to retrieve it, then let go. The Italians offered to pay, then the Egyptians insisted they would. Finally, in recent weeks, a Russian engineer working alongside a team of Italian policemen retrieved what he could.

In a letter to an Italian newspaper in January, Rome’s chief prosecutor, Giuseppe Pignatone, acknowledged the difficulty of an investigation that he called “one of a kind.” “It hasn’t always been easy to enter into the Arab mindset,” he wrote.

In Egypt, Regeni’s case has resulted in a sharp reduction in foreign students coming to do research. “The Regeni case was a turning point for a lot of people,” said Laurie A. Brand, chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom at the Middle East Studies Association. “It made clear that as scholars we didn’t know where the red lines were any more.”

When news filtered out this week of Shobakky’s detention, she added, “we feared it would be Giulio Regeni, Act Two.”

“Thankfully he is still alive, but that doesn’t make his situation any less tenuous,” she said. “It is another episode that underlines the fact that Egypt is no longer safe for researchers.”